A celebrated avant-garde artist, Beryl Korot helped pioneer video art with her multi-monitor installations. Korot used the concept of weaving to create installations where multiple screens displayed interconnected images, as in her Dachau 1974, with its interplay between footage of the camp’s barracks and ovens with imagery of life in the nearby, bucolic town. She followed this in 1977 with Text and Commentary, which blended video, drawings, and woven strips of linen. She collaborated with her husband, composer Steve Reich, on The Cave (a meditation on religion) and Three Tales (a video opera using the Hindenburg crash, nuclear weapons tests, and the death of Dolly the cloned sheep to explore humanity’s relationship with technology). Korot was also founding coeditor of Radical Software, the first periodical devoted to video art.
Beryl Korot is an internationally known video artist who has created multimonitor installations which have been shown all over the world. She is best known for her multiple channel works Dachau 1974 and Text and Commentary, 1977, and her two collaborations with composer Steve Reich, The Cave and Three Tales, both of which brought video art into a theatrical context with contemporary classical music. Her work has been included in nearly every video history retrospective, and she continues to be a pioneer in the field and an innovative avant-garde artist.
Family & Education
Korot’s parents were both born in New York, raised in Queens, and married on August 10, 1941. Beryl was born on Yom Kippur, September 17, 1945, in New York, and her sister, Dorothy Shaw, a painter with whom Korot is very close, was born on November 4, 1949. Her father, George Korot, of Ukrainian descent, was born July 13, 1917, and brought up in a traditionally observant but socialist home. Her mother was born Frieda Braunstein, October 31, 1917. Of Romanian descent, her upbringing was Conservative. Both parents had a strong Jewish identity and Jewish education but were not observant. Beryl Korot considers herself to be a non-denominational observant Jew.
The Braunsteins were the backbone of the local Conservative synagogue. During the Depression they lost their money and were saved economically by Beryl’s grandmother, a first-class caterer. Her grandfather helped with the catering business and remained a talmudic scholar, avid Zionist, rare book collector, and a reader of a wide range of secular literature. Both of Beryl’s parents were devoted to the education of African-American children. Her father was the principal of a school in South Jamaica, most of whose students were African-Americans, and won the Martin Luther King Award, and her mother taught kindergarten nearby. They received the respect and support of the communities in which they worked.
Korot attended the University of Wisconsin for two years and then graduated from Queens College in 1967 with a B.A. in English literature as her major and art history as her minor. During the late 1960s and early 1970s she was part of a very close community of artists dedicated to bringing the world of video and cultural cybernetic thinkers together. They became the Raindance Corporation, a video collective conceived by the artist Frank Gillette. In 1970 Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny edited Radical Software, which they co-founded with Ira Schneider, a periodical of media criticism that was the first video magazine. In 1972 Korot conducted the first cablecast to the town of Saugerties, New York, and in 1976 Schneider and Korot collaborated to produce Video Art: An Anthology, published by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.
At a benefit in 1974 at the Kitchen, New York’s premier performance space during the 1970s, Steve Reich was introduced to Beryl Korot by the photographer and video artist Peter Campus, a mutual friend. Reich, who was born on October 3, 1936, in New York City, is generally considered to be one of America’s outstanding living composers. Korot and Reich were married on May 30, 1976, in a traditional ceremony in Lower Manhattan conducted by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald. Their son, Ezra Reich, was born August 13, 1978. Today he is a performing singer/songwriter in New York City and has one child, Orah Rose Reich, who was born on February 28, 2000.
Video Installation: Dachau 1974
Korot says, “I was attracted to video art because it allowed me to combine a strong sense of content with formal innovation. The field was wide open and allowed for a great deal of experimentation for creating new forms.” Dachau 1974 (1974), twenty-four minutes long, is Korot’s first four-channel video installation, in black-and-white, with sound. Korot went to Germany for the first time in 1974 to visit Reich who was part of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) program in Berlin. “Germany at that time was synonymous with the Holocaust to me and as a Jew it was necessary to face that.” Korot had no family she knew personally who died in the Holocaust; however, the destruction of the Jews of Europe and the creation of the State of Israel were seminal experiences for her as a child living in her grandparents’ home. In October 1974 she shot the material at Dachau and returned to New York to create her first multiple channel work.
Korot uses four monitors built into a wall to revisit this Nazi concentration camp in the present to discover what it might tell us about the past. The sequence of images takes us from the walls outside the camp to the barracks, wooden sleeping quarters, the ovens, a stream. We see tourists outside the camp riding bicycles and hear the crunching of gravel and the sound of church bells in the distance. Korot learned to weave in early 1974 because of her interest in weaving as an early programming tool. She had lost interest in working within the single channel format. By thinking of each channel as a single thread, she created a non-verbal narrative work based on two sets of paired channels moving in time (1 and 3 and 2 and 4), with each set assigned identical images but in different rhythmic relationships to one another. The focus was the journey of the contemporary tourist through this site of former horror. Turning to the ancient technology of the loom, she says, “was a physical way for me as an artist, in an effort to heal my own inner striving for peace, to stretch my arms across millennia to join the ancient and the new in one long embrace.” Presented at Documenta 6 in Kassel, Germany, in 1977, Dachau 1974 has since become a recognized classic of the genre.
Text and Commentary
In March 1977 Korot’s next work, Text and Commentary, was first exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Five gray-toned weavings made by Korot herself hang in combination facing five video monitors. The installation includes notations for enlarged sections of the five weavings, plus pictographic notations of the video portion of the work. For the first time drawings, weavings, and video are bound together in one work, a pivotal piece in Korot’s transition from video artist to painter. Between 1980 and 1988 Korot worked exclusively as a painter. She wove her own linen canvas, and applied thin layers of paint to the surface, allowing the lines and color of the natural linen to show through, then painted calligraphic/language symbols based on her own analog to the English alphabet. These paintings resemble ancient scrolls.
Collaboration with Steve Reich
Conceived and developed by Beryl Korot and Steve Reich, The Cave is a video opera in three acts, and their first professional collaboration. Four years in the making, it had its world premiere at the Vienna Festival on May 15, 1993. The ancient site around which this piece evolved is the cave of Machpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs, in the ancient town of Hebron, which is said to contain the graves of Sarah and Abraham. Jewish mystical sources believe it to be a passageway to the Garden of Eden. It is the only site in the world where Jews and Muslims worship in the same place, though not at the same time. Korot says, “To the extent that Christianity is the dominant religion in the West, The Cave is dealing with a root story that leads to the forefathers of Christianity and Islam.” The piece eloquently suggests the common bonds.
From 1998 to 2002 Korot and Reich produced Three Tales, their second collaboration, a documentary video opera in three acts which is in a sense a meditation on twentieth-century technology. The first act, “Hindenburg,” shows the naïveté driving the industriousness of a nation determined to become technologically superior during World War II. Paul von Hindenburg, then President of Germany, appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany in 1933; in 1937 the dirigible named after him exploded in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the first technological disaster to be carried on film. Korot says, “Three Tales is really about human beings and how we deal with the powers that are given to us.”
Act II of Three Tales, titled “Bikini,” is the most elegiac of the three tales, a meditation on the American atomic tests in the Pacific coral atoll between 1946 and 1954. Korot’s newsreel and video images show blurred scenes of Bikini islanders forced to leave their home, tense American sailors, a plane in flight, bombers humming, streaming numbers, a radar display, cross-cutting images culminating in a still point of palm trees vaporizing in slow-motion, colored by Korot like a Gauguin painting. It is scored to some of the saddest music Reich has composed.
Throughout the work the screen flashes words from the creation story in Genesis into the beginning of “Dolly,” the third act of Three Tales where they are sung by a robot. “Dolly” is based on the real-life Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep, created in 1996 and euthanized in 2003, having lived only half the expectancy of her breed due to premature aging, arthritis, and lung disease. “Dolly” was shot in state-of-the-art digital video, showing interviews with scientific and religious personalities who offer differing perspectives on the advent of genetic engineering, robotics and altering species. “It’s a theater of revelation through utterance.” Three Tales world premiered at the Museumsquartier at the Vienna Festival on May 12, 2002.
As of the early 2000s, Beryl Korot was working on a series of video paintings. She says, “These will be compositionally sophisticated projected works, created bit by bit, as one builds a painting, but instead of using pigment, I use selections or fragments from video and audio to create the composition.” Beryl Korot and Steve Reich live and work in Vermont and New York City.
Honors and Awards
Beryl Korot has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1975, 1977, 1979), the New York State Council on the Arts (1973–74, 1978), and the Creative Artists Public Service Fund (1972, 1975 and 1978). The Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts provided support for her work on Three Tales, and in the early 1990s, The Cave, with additional support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and The Nathan Cummings Foundation. In 1994 Korot received the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship Award. In 2000, Korot and Reich were Montgomery Fellows at Dartmouth College, and in 2002 Korot was nominated for a Wired Magazine Rave Award for her work on Three Tales.
Books and Articles
“Language as Still Life: From Video to Painting,” Leonardo 21/4. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1988.
With Steve Reich. “Thoughts About the Madness in Abraham’s Cave,” The New York Times, March 13, 1994. Writing in collaboration, these artists tell us, “Art cannot make peace, but it can put current events in fruitful dialogue with the ancient past.”
With Ira Schneider. Video Art: An Anthology. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. This highly comprehensive anthology presents statements and works by seventy-three artists who came to video as a natural outgrowth of their work with other media.
“Beryl Korot.” Studio International (May/June 1976): 276, on Dachau 1974.
Reich, Steve, and Beryl Korot. “Three Tales Libretto.” http://www.stevereich.com/threetales_lib.html.
Libretto of “Hindenburg,” “Bikini” and “Dolly,” plus biographies of the fascinating “Dolly Interviewees” including the late Stephen Jay Gould, Nobel Prize laureate James D. Watson, Richard Dawkins, and Cynthia Breazeal, the MIT scientist who created “Kismet,” the robot.
Reich, Steve and Beryl Korot. The Cave. London: 1993. This is an elegant book containing interviews with Korot, Reich, and each interviewee, including the late Carl Sagan, his wife Ann Druyan, and Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan. The Israelis and Palestinians clearly feel a spiritual connection to the cave, whereas nearly all the Americans have no idea what it is. As Korot states, “There really is no cave in America—there is no umbilical cord, the connections are very thin.”
Herbert, Lynn M. “Regarding Spirituality.” In Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Robert Storr, 98–109. New York: 2001. Excellent article. Ms. Herbert’s best writing occurs in her description of Korot’s unusual manipulation of documentary footage in Three Tales, particularly “Bikini,” pulling the viewer into an altogether new dimension of color video narrative.
Wolfe, Julia. “Steve Reich and Beryl Korot.” Bomb 81 (Fall 2002): 62–67. Julia Wolfe, composer and close personal friend, interviews Beryl Korot in her home about Three Tales.
Davidson, Justin. “Technological ‘Tales.’” Newsday, October 13, 2002. Available online at http://www.stevereich.com/threetales_rev.html. Splendid article about Three Tales.